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God of justice: it's okay to be angry.

Psalm 137 is a familiar text and when I read it, I can't help but hear Boney M singing in my mind. Jerusalem has been destroyed and many of its inhabitants killed. The Babylonians have rounded up all those worth taking into exile and are leading them on a forced march to Babylon. At a resting place beside a river, the soldiers ask for some entertainment from their captives: a song, perhaps, maybe one that praises God, or one that says how beautiful Jerusalem was. But the people refuse, saying that they cannot sing one of the songs of God when Jerusalem is in ruins and they are captives in a foreign land. In protest, they hang up their harps on the trees that line the river. (These trees were likely poplars, but the King James Version translated the word as "willow," and for that reason the great Swedish botanist Linnaeus gave the weeping willow the taxonomic name Salix babylonica.)


That's the familiar part of this psalm, the part that Boney M sang, the part that touches us all in times of grief and loneliness and separation. But then, if we don't stop reading or listening soon enough, there comes the part of the psalm that we don't know as well. The psalmist expresses the hope that, should they ever forget Jerusalem, or ever set any other joy above Jerusalem, their tongue will be stuck to the roof of their mouth, like someone who has eaten too much peanut butter, so that they can never sing again. The writer remembers the cries of those who pillaged the city of Jerusalem, caning them Edomites (an ancient enemy of the people of Israel), and prays that God will never forget what these people have done to God's city. And then come the words that make us flinch:
O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they
be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy
shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

We shudder at the expression of such violence against children, against the idea of such deadly revenge. And so we should. There is no place in our lives or in the church for such actions.

But while there is no place for such actions, there is a place in our lives and in the church for the expression of feelings of anger at appropriate times. We sometimes seem to suggest that Christians should be nice people, and the church should be a nice place, and since anger is not a nice thing, it does not belong in the church. But there is ample evidence in the Bible to suggest that God can, at times, be angry and I think that we too should be free to express our anger at the kinds of things that also anger God.

When atrocities happen, when innocent lives are taken, when children are abused, when violence abounds, we should be angry. And that anger might even involve wishing that God or someone else would set things right; would do the kinds of things to the aggressors that they have done to us or to others. I don't believe that there is anything wrong with such a wish as long as it is just a wish and we aren't planning to act on it or intending that anyone else will act on it either. The writer of Psalm 137 is not in a position to exact revenge for the destruction of all that is dear to them, and neither are any of their friends. All they can do is cry out to God and hope that someday God will execute justice on their behalf. Anger may not exactly be a Christian virtue, but it is an emotion that all of us have, and vocalizing our anger to God is far healthier than trying to bottle it up and keep it inside us. By voicing that anger, we renew our trust that the God of justice, who is also the God of mercy, will ultimately set things right.

October 6 Pentecost 20 Psalm 137

Alex Bisset is minister at Riverdale and Westminster, Toronto.
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Author:Bisset, Alex
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:Oct 1, 2013
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